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Vagabond spirit

What a difference three months makes.

In June, a languid energy prevailed at Bridges on Tramway, a fledgling mixed-use development. A few patrons idled away the afternoon on the patio at the newly opened Boxing Bear before a largely empty parking and a row of unfinished storefronts.

Fast-forward to September, and a dramatically different energy infused the place. Families and couples filled the patios out front, and the parking lot was full except for a few spaces in the back. Two grinning kids burst out of the Paleta Bar holding chocolate-dipped confections covered with gummy worms, almost running down a woman carrying a couple of six-packs from Boxing Bear.

Much of the action revolved around Tako Ten, the brick-and-mortar incarnation of Dominic Valenzuela’s popular food truck, Dia de los Takos. Valenzuela opened the place a month ago with a new name but the same unique spelling as displayed on the truck.

The design is fantastic, starting with a sombrero-wearing skull on a turquoise-colored wall above the entrance. Inside, thick ropes hang above the dining room, and the walls are decorated with Day of the Dead-themed artwork. Each of the 10 tacos has a different name and character assigned to it. The battered avocado taco, for instance, is the Free Spirit, a straw-haired skeleton with peace signs in her eye sockets.

The artwork gave me something to look at while I stood in a modest line waiting to order. When my turn came, the cashier told me it would be a half-hour wait for the food. I learned Tako Ten Lesson One: Call ahead whenever possible.

After you order at the counter, you can wait inside or go grab a drink at Boxing Bear and have a server call you on your phone. To conform to the 25% capacity order, indoor seating is limited to an L-shaped bench with a few tables and chairs arranged in front of it. Most people sat out on the makeshift patio of tented-over parking spaces out front, a now-familiar sight of the pandemic.

The 10 tacos on the menu, priced at $3.50 to $3.75, run the gamut from the familiar to the exotic. With the Circle of Friends option ($34), you get one of each sprawled across the bottom of a pizza box along with samples of the restaurant’s seven salsas.

The best tacos are the ones with the slow-cooked fillings, such as a melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket and an equally succulent carnitas, slow-cooked pork shoulder chopped and shredded over a grill. Frying is done well here, as seen in the Dreamer, a taco filled with moist and tender fried chicken thigh meat in a chipotle crema. Both the fish taco and the battered avocado were free of grease and had a nice crunch abetted by baja slaw and house crema.

Of note on the more inventive side of the spectrum is the vegan Yogi taco, filled with sweet potato fries and topped with guacamole and chipotle hummus. The fillings produce a smoky creaminess that plays nicely off the slight sweetness of the fries.

The salsa bar was the cleanest one I’ve seen, thanks to diligent oversight from the staff. Among the vivid palate of reds and greens are old standbys such as salsa rojo and salsa verde and some less familiar choices, such as the deep-red, fiery tres chiles. It’s fun to pair the salsas with the different tacos and test your tolerance as you go up the Scoville Units ladder. My two favorites were the bright and sunny yellow mango and a pale green Peruvian aji, which looks and tastes like a spicy aioli.

There are plenty of non-taco options on the menu. Burgers start at $8.50 for the basic single patty and jump up in $1 increments for add-ons such as green chile, cheese and caramelized onions. There are chips and dips, fries and a salad with a choice of proteins.

The Frida Pie ($8.75 half order, $15.50 full), Tako Ten’s version of nachos, invites you to “embrace your inner artist and paint your platter how you like at our salsa bar.” There are no Fritos here; just tricolored chips laced with melted Oaxaca queso and ground beef chili and topped with a generous pile of guacamole. It makes for good takeout food, as the chips soften under the weight of the condiments but still maintain enough backbone for scooping.

The visual appeal of green chile cheese fries ($6), one of seven french fry options on the menu, is lost in the takeout container as the white cheese sinks beneath the pile of fat, pale yellow fries, leaving the large chunks of green chile on top looking a little forlorn. No matter, though, as the dish delivers cheesy, starchy comfort cut through with green chile flavor and heat.

For dessert, Tako Ten offers Churro Fries ($5) drizzled with raspberry sauce. The tart raspberry complemented the cinnamon-flavored churros well, but the fries were flaccid and tough to chew through.

Most of the items on the menu are gluten-free or can be made that way on request. There are a few vegan options as well.

After years of wandering the city in his food truck, Dominic Valenzuela has found a home at Bridges on Tramway. Thankfully, the vagabond spirit remains.